I am happy to share another collaboration with James Portelli, the guest blogger who wrote route reports for Camino Inglés/Finisterre among many other insightful posts. For this one, James interviewed four friends from Malta who walked the Camino Francés in September and October 2016.
James and John, one of the peregrinos mentioned in this piece, had participated with other Maltese pilgrims on earlier Caminos raising over € 100,000 to support local charities.
Below is the interview, ‘Ultreya Pellegrini Maltin,’ which translates to ‘Onward Maltese Pilgrims.’ Enjoy!
Ultreya Pellegrini Maltin
by James Portelli
Tucc and I dropped in at the ‘Four Seasons,’ a small wine bar in Birkirkara, Malta, to help send off four friends on their Camino Francés. Pierre German and Raymond Aquilina, both retired, were attempting the full Camino Francés from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago. Alex Tanti and John Chircop, still in employment, accumulated a year’s worth of vacation-leave entitlement to accompany Raymond and Pierre for the first part of the Camino. Alex walked to Burgos and John to Leon. John is returning between April 18-27, 2017, walking from Leon to Sarria with another Maltese Camino aficionado, Joseph Farrugia, attempting the full Camino Francés in Spring of 2017. John had already walked the Sarria-Santiago stint on an earlier Camino in May 2014.
They had been training together for a considerable number of months. Their spirits and sense of camaraderie were high. Their gaze spoke of anticipation. These were four men, from four different walks of life, coming together to embrace the Camino Francés. They all conceded that their earlier training in addition to building stamina was also aimed at fostering a team spirit among them.
Parallel and Shared Experiences
Raymond, a seasoned trekker, had already undertaken the Camino Portugués before from Lisbon to Santiago. “On reaching retirement age I was looking for an exciting experience which marked the beginning of this important stage in life away from the daily work routine.”
“What I liked most about the Camino was experiencing life without any rules or a strict timetable.” This was Ray’s motive. “During the Camino, I discovered new experiences through the various people I met.”
Pierre started to learn Spanish a few years ago, and it was through his Spanish teacher that he learnt about the beauty of walking the Camino.
Pierre: “I instantly became intrigued. I waited three years for my retirement so that I could go and walk the whole Camino Francés.” Pierre conceded that his perspective changed during the Camino, “After a few days of walking, I felt an increased spiritual awareness.” With this came a yearning to foray ahead of the Maltese group of friends. “Everything that happens on the Camino happens for a reason. One morning I met a pilgrim from Lebanon. His name was Francis. It was 6 am, and he seemed to have come out of nowhere. We walked together for a while, sharing each other’s life experiences and at one point I told him “Francis, I feel ashamed.” “Why Pierre?” he asked. I said, “In all my weeks of preparation, compiling lists of things to bring with me and checking and double checking, I forget one important thing.” “What is it, Pierre? He asked. I said, “My rosary beads.” Francis looked at me for a moment, he knelt down, unzipped his backpack and took out a rosary bead. He said “You do not need to feel ashamed any longer my friend. For some reason, I packed two in my bag. Here, this one is for you.” We met each other a couple of other times along the way, and both of us felt as if we had met an angel on the Camino. Meeting others along the way and sharing my experiences was something I looked forward to every day. However, I also believe that one still needs to be alone for some time during the day.”
Meeting new people and hearing and sharing experiences is a recurring theme with every pilgrim on the Camino. Raymond relayed a kindred sentiment to Pierre’s, “It is very important . . . every day I encountered different people with whom I shared my experience while also hearing their personal experiences.”
For Alex, a Sales Manager in Malta for one of the leading European automobile brands, this was his first taste of a Camino on Spanish soil. Vacation leave precluded him from walking the whole way with Raymond and Pierre. He joined them from St. Jean Pied de Port to Burgos, as did John. Alex recalled that pilgrims did not just have stories. “Each person—each pilgrim—is a story.”
Although the youngest, John is the most experienced trekker of the four; often leading trekking and camping trips in Malta and elsewhere in Europe. This was his third Camino stint having earlier undertaken the Tui-Santiago route on the Camino Portugues and the Sarria-Santiago segment on the Camino Francés. “I knew that sooner or later, somehow, I ‘needed’ to walk the full Camino Francés, starting from St. Jean Pied de Port. I wanted the time spent walking to serve as a means of reflection; a secure, stable but different daily routine which would allow me to enjoy the great Camino experience.” John is still in full-time employment with a leading IT consulting firm so, like Alex, he was constrained to divide the full Camino Francés over two years. “I did not have much time to plan a big trip in 2016. When Ray suggested that I join him on the Camino Francés, I immediately accepted.”
What time did they head out each morning? Pierre was an earlier riser and believed in covering more ground in early morning more often than not as a solitary pilgrim. As the day wore in, the pace would relent, and he interacted with more pilgrims on the way. “When I started walking the Camino on my own I set off at 5.30 in the morning.” The earlier start also meant that he covered more ground in a shorter time. “My longest stretch was from Ferrerios to Melide, a distance of around 48 km in one day. My shortest was from Larrasona to Pamplona—14.8 km. I walked from St. Jean Pied de Port to Muxia, a distance of 900 km in 30 days. So, on average I walked 30 km a day.”
Raymond, Alex, and John preferred a slightly later start. They were generally up by 6 am and hit the road soon afterwards. Ray maintained this routine even when he parted ways with Alex and John close to Burgos. “My longest walk was approximately 40 km from Albergue Molin de Marzan in Peruscallo to Palaise de Rei and, walking from San Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela I averaged close to 30 km a day.” John’s longest walk was 36 km from Navarette, and his shortest was 18 km from Burgos to Hontanas, averaging around 28 km per day.
A common source of concern for many pilgrims particularly on the longer Caminos is whether to book accommodation ahead of time. “I had provisionally booked many of the albergues as I was concerned about availability due to the large number of pilgrims. I think if there wasn’t this large flow of pilgrims I would have preferred not to book. I had a number of positive surprises when I did not book,” recounted Ray. Like Raymond, Alex had pre-booked his albergues between St. Jean and Burgos. “I would not do it differently when I continue the next leg. Most of the time booking was just by a prior phone call and provided peace of mind.”
John shared the same mixed sentiment as Ray regarding pre-booking albergues. “The popularity of the Camino Francés compared to other routes can prove to be a constant annoyance when it comes to accommodation. I was initially worried about having to participate in a ‘race for beds’ in some of the destinations. Once these thoughts subsided, I could allow my original motivations to work much better. I found myself more outwardly- than inwardly-connecting with the present moment, taking in the scenery, emotions, and people that I was spending time with. Sometimes relying on providence and understanding that the race for beds is not really as big an issue as one thinks makes for a better experience.”
Pierre’s perspective was slightly different. “During the same time that I was walking the Camino there was an incredible number of pilgrims on the way which made it difficult to find a bed. I held back from booking a bed in advance for the first 19 days. But then I had to give in.” In hindsight, he smiles, “It’s not fun being turned away from a number of albergues because they have no vacancies after having walked 30 km or 35 km in a day. Continuing then to the next village was not a joke.”
John added, “Sometimes you really need to play it by ear and go with the flow. The context is more important than pre-planning. For example, when we reached Viana there was a festival about to commence involving the running of the bulls (no cruelty involved). I was almost in tears that we had to leave such a great festival behind because we had pre-booked at the next destination. We shouldn’t under-estimate our gut feeling at times.”
Ray, John, and Pierre praised a number of albergues for offering a unique experience to the pilgrim and for generally making them feel welcomed. These included Albergue Emaus in Burgos, San Luis de Francia at Villamayor de Rio, Albergue San Anton within the monastery ruins (although without electricity or running water on the night they stayed there), the Monastery Albergue in Samos, La Faba, Porta de Santiago in Pedrouzo, Santa Maria in Carrion de Los Condes and Albergue Gaia in Ponferrada. John summed up Emaus as, “a clean and ordered place giving one respite from the Camino madness,” in Burgos. Alex also echoed their praise for some of the albergues, singling out Albergue Emaus in Burgos describing it as, “Outstanding!”
Regrettably, three albergues fell below expectations. “Worst was Santa Marija de Carbajal in Leon because of bed bugs. Albergue Jesus in Manzarife and Albergue Calzadilla de los Mermanillos were relatively shabby and lacked cleanliness.” John was even less courteous towards Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, stating categorically, “avoid like the plague.”
Despite the adverse albergue experience, both Pierre and Raymond agreed that Leon was a beautiful town. “I was happy to spend an extra day in Leon and wished I had done the same in Burgos. Both cities have a lot of history and places worth visiting,” said Pierre. Ray agreed, “Leon is a wonderful city which deserves another day.”
Ray continued, “The Camino Francés can be split into diverse stages. The Napoleon Route marks the first day, followed by the Basque region with exciting Pamplona. Subsequently, the Burgos to Leon route through the Meseta leads to Galicia. Galicia points to Santiago.”
“Santiago is a wonderful city especially around the Cathedral where many pilgrims meet upon arrival after days of walking. One has to, however, ignore the commercial subliminal.”
Focusing on Santiago, John reminded us that several peregrinos described reaching Santiago as something of an anti-climax, adding “I may agree with this point of view although I hasten to add that this is more of an inward perspective, rather than opinion of this wonderful Medieval city. Santiago is indeed a beautiful city however one needs to be psychologically prepared to deal with the feeling that the journey is ‘over,’” concluding with a question, “But is this even possible?”
Pierre ups the stakes, “I feel that the Santiago to Fisterra route should be part and parcel of the Camino. For me, while arriving in Santiago yielded a sense of fulfillment, walking to the edge—to Fisterra—was when I felt that my mission was really accomplished. I then also continued to Muxia on foot, returning to Santiago by bus.”
Spiritual or Temporal
Pierre sums up his overall Camino experience, “For the spiritual pilgrims the Camino offers the chance to find and discover the inner self. To achieve this, it is necessary to walk parts of the Camino all alone. For me, it strengthened my bond with God, strengthened my faith like never before. Before I started, I outlined some points which I wanted the Camino to help me see in a different way. Once on the road, I realised I did not need to think ahead. Silent introspection on the Way helped sort out priorities and identify what I had been missing in life. At the same time, I was thankful for other aspects of my life. Months after the Camino experience I can’t really say that I am back. The Camino keeps calling me to return. A big part of my life is still there, waiting for me.”
Asked to sum up the Camino experience in a few words, John hesitated, “I’m not sure that I want to reply with an answer that does not do it justice. It is a microcosm of life, where time spent on the Camino slows down and days become longer. Undertaking the Camino with preconceived ideas and an ill-prepared body will lead to needless pain and suffering. One needs to go there with an open mind and little expectation and encounter pleasant surprises in ways I would struggle to explain. It can be a splendid or miserable adventure, depending on what you want to make it.”
Ray coined it in a much shorter but equally loaded phrase, “It was a most cherished lifetime experience.”
Alex, determined to return, “Rediscover life . . . Walk the Camino.”